Monday, June 19, 2017

Doubtful Sound via Fiordland Expeditions

Friends, this was a singular experience. Fiordland is quite challenging to access without a helicopter, fixed-wing craft, or boat. Yes you can walk (and we have!) and you can even walk 300 miles worth of trails within Fiordland if you can mange it. But, oh, being on a small craft brings remarkable access, and the crew could not have made our journey through Doubtful Sound one iota better.

But let's back up, because first we boarded a boat in Manapouri, on the edge of the lake of the same name. This is a beautiful journey in itself. Here's that boat, which we shared with many others.

They were out for a day cruise, arriving from Manapouri here (just below) with us to board a bus that moves overland to Doubtful Sound, where they board a second boat, cruise a bit, and then repeat the process in reverse.

Art and I disembarked and got into a van with two other passengers for our overnight tour, along with Skipper Dave and Crewmember Jackie. After the drive and a brief look at the hydro-run power plant (more about that later), we all hopped on to this little cruiser, our home for the next two days.

Heard enough about boats? Well, then, let's get to it, because what's outside definitely counts more than the inside for this trip.

In fact, we found it challenging to be in, with views like this surrounding us and changing virtually every minute. There was awe. Gratitude. And a deep feeling of calm.

Still, Jackie's popping the cork on a NZ sparkling wine in the galley and somehow we're magically drawn back in.

How about a look at the accommodations? Here's our bedroom, with private bathroom attached. Space for two on the double bed below, definitely roomier than Amtrak.

We're pulling out into the sound on a perfect day--sun, clouds, and looming landforms.

The boat has two levels, handy for scampering up and down with multiple cameras. Here's the top deck. There are bunks and a bathroom inside that small enclosure, space for larger groups. We feel lucky we're sharing our time aboard with the loveliest fellow passengers, Jackie and Charles, Durban, South Africa natives but for 18 years Kiwis who have run their veterinary practice in the Bay of Islands (on NZ North Island).

Time to return to the dining room, just off the galley, where Jackie's concocted a most delicious fish pasta in cream sauce.

Before long we're all back outside along the rail, feasting on scenes like these.

Sounds or fiords? According to our literature: Fiordland's west coast is deeply indented by 14 fiords, spanning 215 km of coastline. Early Europeans exploring the southern coast bestowed the name "sounds" onto these dramatic valleys. However, a true sound is a river valley that has been flooded due to the land sinking below sea level. Fiords are created by glacial action that produces U-shaped valleys with steep cliffs.

It's time for Skipper Dave to go diving for dinner. Jackie lowers the skiff off the top deck as we all watch.

What? You mean she's going too, leaving us alone on the boat in Doubtful Sound? We ruminate about this for a while. Actually, Jackie is a spearfisher and is only sorry she's not the one diving for crays (NZ lobster).

Off they go. Way off.

We ruminate some more on how we'd ever get back without them, but 25 minutes later they're approaching. Let's hope Dave was lucky.
And he was! It's just beginning to occur to us that this will not be the run-of-the-mill buffet-type cruise. We're all imagining a meal tonight from these beautiful creatures. It's now illegal in NZ to toss crays into boiling water--they do make a sort of scream--and so they're placed in a bucket of fresh water, where their demise will arrive without fear. Charles the vet confirms this is good practice, but Art wonders if it isn't just a slower death.

We motor on to a new spot for fishing. Fishing! That sounds like fun. We're going to catch yet another part of our evening meal. Art gets set up with a baited rod and doesn't he look happy? 

Dave has positioned us in a spot near a ledge with a sandy bottom (which blue cod prefer, he says). Lines are baited and drop (I think) about 60 feet down. And the action begins. Art reels in the first gorgeous blue cod.
Look who's cruising around our lines. It's a Buller's mollymawk, smaller relative of the enormous albatross. We're told when reeling in to keep the fish well clear of the water by yanking up quickly or these birds will have our dinner for lunch.

Buller’s mollymawks are one of the more abundant small albatrosses occurring around coastal areas of New Zealand, particularly from Cook Strait south. Their striking black-and-golden-yellow bill and smart black-and-white plumage make them readily identifiable as they scavenges close to fishing vessels.
This is just a beautiful bird, built like a tank with stylish white legs and webs.

Fish on! Jackie and Charles are pulling them in too, Jackie a tarakihi, which later we'll enjoy as sashimi.
Dave and crewmember Jackie do the honors.

Each fish is carefully measured against the ruler for appropriate size. We tossed back just one that was too small.

Meantime, Art reels in another before my hook even gets baited, and soon we're out of bait. Salami to the rescue...until Charles catches a beautiful small pink fish that's so quickly dispatched with the fillet knife for bait that I miss the photo.

Charles pulls in a nice blue cod, salami intact.

And yes, I finally got baited up and pulled in a big blue cod. We're having a good time now!

Before long, we're heading out to look at fur seals, and for this Dave takes us to the very edge of Doubtful Sound, where it meets the Tasman Sea, which has quite a different temperament.

Here's a partial map showing where the sound meets the sea and some of the different arms of the sound we cruised up and down (click here if viewing in email to see map).

It's rougher out here, but, looking back, we have a rainbow connection.

Breathtakingly raw.

Approaching seal rock.

This is the very edge of Fiordland where it breaks into the wild Tasman Sea. Dave is inching us closer to the enormous rock filled with NZ fur seals and telling us how they were nearly wiped out by European explorers who valued the seals for their fur and oil, which ran lamps. Turn up your audio and listen with this video as Dave narrates (click here if viewing in email to see the vid).

Whew! We head back into the far calmer fiords and some on board are grateful for that. Also, it's time for snacks.

And then dinner. Oh my goodness it was delicious and likely some of the freshest fish we've ever eaten (acknowledging that Chris and Rich were pretty fast with the filet knife at Willow Lake).

Fellow passenger Jackie's tarakihi sashimi

Cooked and chilled crays with wasabi mayo

You mean there's more?

Blue cod in beurre blanc sauce with potatoes and greens

By the time the pudding arrived and the whipped cream was passed I was probably too full to pick up my camera, but it too was delectable. All praise to chef Jackie, who prepared every morsel. We sat and talked over tea, listening to the New Zealanders discuss rugby and the NZ team's great showing in the America's Cup.

Even though evening's rolling in and we're excited to think about sleeping aboard, we can't stay inside. Will you permit a few more pictures, mostly shot off the back of the boat, first level.

Happy, campers, so happy

We pull into the very end of one of those smaller Doubtful Sound arms for the night. Look how calm the water.

And sleep like babies for ten hours.


  1. Amazing. What is the name of the boat and how do we contact Jackie and Dave?

  2. That's crazy Heidi. Reminds me so much of Milford. But we didn't get to fish!

  3. Epic post! What a journey.

    Your brief chat on preparing the lobsters reminds me of this classic DFW piece...